The National Women's Soccer League Is Kicking Off Its 2020 Season
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Pro sports are returning slowly to stadiums and arenas in the U.S. as leagues like the NBA and Major League Soccer talk about housing their teams in bubbles in Orlando later this summer. One sports league is ready to start play in just over a week. The National Women's Soccer League is kicking off its 2020 season behind closed doors in Utah with a special tournament they are calling the Challenge Cup. NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird is on the line with us to tell us more. Welcome.
LISA BAIRD: Well, thanks, Mary Louise. I'm happy to be here.
KELLY: Why now? How did you decide the moment's right?
BAIRD: We were able to get to this timing for two reasons. One was - the first and the most important was we worked quite extensively to develop the right medical and safety protocols. We got to the point where we said, OK, we're ready to go. And then we began a phased-in approach to training, where we're doing now. And from that phased-in approach, we were then able to establish June 27 as our kickoff date for our first game.
KELLY: And why in Utah? I was thinking about Utah and how Utah never really reopened because it never really closed. Did that play into why host the tournament there?
BAIRD: Yeah. And you know, it's been interesting as a sports commissioner. We were monitoring all of the states and what was happening with the rise of COVID and the incidence. And Utah, because we have a team there - the Utah Royals, caught our attention for two reasons. One is they have the facilities that are necessary for us to put on the tournament and create what we call the NWSL Village to house our teams. You know, we were really caught by what Utah health officials and the governor were doing to manage the incidence and also to welcome sport back.
KELLY: Describe to me the village. I mean, what is the setup going to be as you get players and coaches and the whole rest of the staff that you need to pull this off in one place?
BAIRD: Yeah, it's a beehive. That's going to be the best way to think about it is - because of the medical protocols, we had to think about how when players, from the moment they touch down to when they arrive at their hotel or their accommodations to how they train, how that they're going to go past each other as they get to their training, who's scheduled to use the medical facilities like the ice bath - down to the ice bath. But it really is controlling all of the player movements and where they're housed to make sure that we're minimizing contact between the unit. And the unit is the team.
KELLY: What do you say to players who would argue - you know, the best way to keep players safe and everybody else working with the teams is not to play right now?
BAIRD: You're getting at the heart, Mary Louise. Early on, as the commissioner, I took a stance that maybe other leagues are not able to do, which is I gave all of our players the ability to opt out. Our players will be paid through the end of the season. And we know that there are enough players that have elected to play. And I hope and believe it's because we have spent so much time creating the safety protocols.
KELLY: One question on a personal note before I let you go - you took over as league commissioner in March. What was the exact date?
BAIRD: March 10.
KELLY: What has that been like? How challenging has it been to try to figure all this out - to have the whole league shutting down and everything closing as you were just taking over?
BAIRD: It was the most challenging thing, Mary Louise, I've ever done. And it was frightening to me personally because I kept looking for answers. I kept looking for the playbook and the rulebook, and it didn't exist. I just quickly realized, I'm going to have to pull the best people around me and figure out our own playbook. And that was frankly a little hard to do. So I'm feeling a lot more confident than I was on March 12, when we just shut down pre-season two days after I started.
KELLY: Well, Lisa Baird, thank you so much and best of luck.
BAIRD: Thanks so much, Mary Louise. And I hope you'll be watching.
KELLY: I will look forward to it. That's Lisa Baird, commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League which, as you heard, returns to play later this month.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXMAG'S "ZAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.